Jazz Conversation with Dana Gioia
by Larry Appelbaum
At the 2004 National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Masters awards ceremony in New York, Chairman Dana Gioia offered opening remarks that struck a chord with many in the audience, especially when he talked about his lifelong personal experience with jazz.
Chairman Gioia may, at first glance, be an unlikely advocate for jazz. He is best known as a poet, anthologist and critic, especially for his controversial 1992 book Can Poetry Matter? Essays on Poetry and Popular Culture (Graywolf). He received a B.A. and an M.B.A. from Stanford University and completed an M.A. in comparative literature at Harvard University where he studied with the poets Robert Fitzgerald and Elizabeth Bishop. In 1977, Gioia moved to New York, and for the next 15 years he worked as a business executive before leaving in 1992 to become a full-time writer.
Since his February 2003 appointment to head the NEA, Gioia has hit the ground running: working to expand the audience for jazz, doubling the number of artists receiving Jazz Masters fellowships and adding a touring program, television broadcasts and CD releases.
Let me start by asking about something you said: “I want to expand the country’s awareness of jazz, to use it to combat the cultural impoverishment that threatens us.” How does the awareness of jazz combat cultural impoverishment?
You’re asking a very big question so I’ll give you a very big answer. I worry that we live in a culture where the number of things that we pay attention to gets smaller and smaller each year. We’re surrounded by this nonstop intricate web of commercial, electronic entertainment, and it really focuses on about seven or eight things: politics, entertainment, weather, traffic, celebrities, sports and money. In the average week, local traffic gets more airtime than all the arts, education and ideas combined. I think one of the most important things that we can do is carve out some space in our society where other conversations can take place, other types of art can be presented.
I worry about the generation of Americans that are growing up now. My son Ted is 15, and I’ve tried really hard to make sure that he’s exposed to a lot of things, but I see a lot kids-really smart kids, well-educated kids-and they know nothing about so much of life. They can probably name 200 baseball or basketball players, a hundred hip-hop artists and 200 television personalities, but they probably could not name a single living jazz artist, poet, painter, sculptor, choreographer, architect, biologist or physicist. I’m really concerned about expanding the audience for all the arts in the United States, with jazz being foremost because jazz is not only one of the greatest American art forms, it’s one of the defining American art forms.